Julius Matovu

Ethnographic Design: The best ideas come from your users

This is the second in a three-part Grameen Foundation series that discusses designing products and services for poor people. This post reviews the use of design ethnography during early research phases to gain insights into the financial needs of the poor. You can read the first and third posts here.

The first step on the path to developing new products for poor people is exploratory research, or “design ethnography.” During this phase, we spend time with potential users to gain a deep understanding of the user’s world. Developing actionable insights is not a simple task; it requires approaches and techniques that foster empathy with users to gain deep insights into their wants and needs.

How long should ethnographic design research take?

When creating financial products for our partners, we are bound by time and resources – often our initial field research expeditions span only a couple of weeks. Though we leverage traditional ethnographic approaches, the emphasis is not on the quantity of interactions but on acquiring a deep understanding of the experiences of the people we have encountered. For example, in recent exploratory research around village savings and loan associations (VSLAs), we only needed to observe eight people to understand that the manual filling of ledger books by group secretaries is a tedious task and that a way to digitize this process would be invaluable.

How do we approach an ethnographic exercise?

Setting the stage for research is just as important as the research itself. Several key considerations help us ensure the environment will support a strong ethnographic session:

Avoid bringing an army of researchers to the field: It is important to keep the number of researchers small to avoid overwhelming the participant. When faced with many new faces, participants can become intimidated and less likely to provide accurate answers. Once while testing a mobile savings product in rural Uganda, our team arrived with several partners who were interested in observing the work – however, we were eight people meeting a group of four participants. The participants had not expected a big group and were overwhelmed. In response, we asked some team members to step away from the meeting and conduct other research in the village.

Limit the number of gadgets: Researchers tend to carry a flurry of gadgets (cameras, recorders, smartphones, tablets, etc.) to document every experience. However, some gadgets can look very intimidating to rural subjects. It’s worse if every team member is carrying technology.

One way to solve this problem is to carry fewer gadgets or to appoint one team member to hold the technology (e.g., one person charged with photography is less intimidating than everyone taking photos). Timing can also be important. In a recent concept-testing exercise for a savings product that we had uploaded onto a tablet, we began the session by displaying the tablet, only to discover that participants were intimidated. However, when we explained the idea first and pulled out the tablet later, the participants were much more comfortable.

Use local contacts to recruit participants: Finding the right people to speak with is often a challenge. Using trusted intermediaries or local leaders to find subjects saves time and helps locate appropriate individuals. Using village leaders to find participants makes research easier because rural people trust and respect their leaders. Also, working through local leaders allows us to operate within existing hierarchies and avoid causing tension with the communities.

How do we ensure that we’re gathering relevant content from users?

The value of design ethnography is dependent on the quality of the content obtained from users. We follow several simple rules of thumb to collect quality data from participants:

Invest time: If you spend time with someone you instill trust – they open up and you learn more. We once came across a woman who we believed to be struggling financially, based on initial information gathered about her from our field mobilizers. However, when we invested time (about three hours) interacting with her, we were amazed to learn how much she was doing for herself – and that she had solid plans for her future. For instance, though we were told she was only a subsistence farmer, over those three hours we learned that she also raised pigs and owned a boda boda (motorcycle), and that in the future she planned to save up for a shop to enhance her income.

Beware of potential power dynamics: In rural areas, foreigners or new people can be perceived to be more knowledgeable than villagers. This power dynamic can skew research because participants may try to answer what they believe you want to hear. Avoid this scenario by building rapport with the participant before drilling into details. Explaining to the participants that you are interested in learning from them because they are the subject-matter experts also helps make them comfortable with the approach.

Use appropriate questions and research tools: No single tool or method will fit all or every project. Non-conventional methods of enquiry can shed light on new and interesting aspects of people and their lives, in turn shaping new product ideas.

Recently we wanted to know how rural dwellers make financial decisions. We presented participants with pictures representing common expenditures (food, school fees, mobile phone airtime, etc.), asked them to estimate their monthly income, and provided dummy money of the same amount. We then asked them to allocate money as they would in real life. When they finished, we presented “emergencies” – for instance, how would you change your spending if a family member fell ill? This provided a window into the decision-making process because people proactively talked through their choices as they re-allocated money. We uncovered lots of interesting tidbits about people’s lives this way.

Design ethnography can be a powerful way to drive insights that yield opportunities for new products. In our next and final post, we will talk about what do after the exploratory research phase has concluded, and how to engage the user in prototyping to enhance a product idea.

Julius Matovu is a researcher at Grameen Foundation’s MFS Incubator in Uganda.

financial inclusion, research